Archive for April, 2012

Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich

7 comments April 21st, 2012 Headsman

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, leaving his associates to face the music for World War II.

From the rich mine of Soviet wartime propaganda posters at Davno.ru (also see its Victory Day cards).

The days preceding Hitler’s demise had seen a fascist state that once stretched from the Atlantic to Moscow (almost to Moscow) hemmed into vanishing pockets, spiraling towards certain capitulation.

Resistance really was futile.

Nevertheless, resistance was as ferocious as Nazi Germany’s remaining resources could permit, and as cruel in its way as anything in those cruel years. Each dwindling day brought among its privations fresh executions, deaths without meaning or grandeur, vindictive and cynically apportioned deaths mopping up old enemies and settling old scores, most every one without the slightest effect upon the the war’s resolution.

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1954: Michael Manning, the last hanged in Ireland

Add comment April 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Michael Manning was hanged for the drunken rape-murder of an elderly nurse. It was the last execution in the Republic of Ireland.

Less than 40 years before the modern Irish state had been born in a bloody civil war, notorious for its many executions.

But once Ireland had the stability to draw a line under political executions in the early 1920s, it proved to have scant appetite for capital punishment. Indeed, a provision abolishing it altogether had even been considered for Ireland’s 1922 constitution.

Although Mountjoy Prison had murder hangings in the mid-1920s, which was the style at the time, even by the 1930s actual executions had receded into oddity status: only four men and one woman were hanged in that entire decade. They even had to keep importing British hangman Tom Pierrepoint, and later his famous nephew Albert Pierrepoint, to carry them out. That can’t have helped the popularity of the enterprise.

There was a brief death penalty recrudescence during the war years, and that was pretty much it. Michael Manning’s milestone execution (also in Mountjoy Prison, also conducted by Albert Pierrepoint) was the first one since 1948 … and the last one ever since.

Ireland repealed the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1964, and has since abolished it for everything else. That constitutional prohibition on the death penalty that Ireland didn’t enact in 1922 was in 2001 adopted after all in what is now a very staunchly abolitionist Ireland.

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1662: John Barkstead, Miles Corbet, and John Okey, renditioned regicides

2 comments April 19th, 2012 Headsman

Happy 350th death day to three English regicides renditioned from Holland.

John Barkstead, Miles Corbet and John Okey were all among the 59 judges who signed the death-warrant of King Charles I.

Like everyone else on that parchment, they were in a world of hurt when Oliver Cromwell died and Charles II returned to the throne. And like a great many of those who figured to reap the whirlwind, they sensibly fled the realm.

Had they stayed hunkered down in Germany, they might have died in their beds.

Instead, they trusted a friend … and died half-hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, and chopped to pieces on a scaffold.

It was an ugly sight from start to finish. The capture of these fugitives was a dirty business mixing treachery, diplomatic subterfuge, and dubious legality, all in the service of violent statecraft. Sort of like it was ripped from the Downing Street memo.

The author of it all was the original Downing: Sir George Downing, the namesake of London’s Downing Street, where the British Prime Minister resides.

This guy was coming into the prime of his continent- and polity-spanning career: from Puritan New England, to the West Indies, to a gig in Cromwell’s army during the English Civil War. (It was John Okey himself who hooked Downing up: Downing matriculated with Harvard University’s first graduating class thanks to Okey’s sponsorship, and it was in Okey’s regiment that Downing was retained as chaplain.)

An able diplomat for the Protectorate, Downing was able to communicate his discreet abjuration to the exiled Charles II once the handwriting was on the wall, and he therefore effected a convenient volte-face and went right to work for the new boss … even when it meant hunting down his own friends and patrons. You might say it was the zeal of the converted, but maybe it was better-expressed by Downing’s own pledge to secure the refugees with vigor “as much as if my life lay at stake in the busines.”

Sound policy, considering his history. And he couldn’t have pulled it off with an ounce less.

Officially, the Low Countries had agreed not to give refuge to regicides: in reality, regicides could rest pretty easy there. Pro-immigrant, pro-Protestant,* and jealous of their sovereignty, the Dutch had little desire to enforce such clauses at any level of government; and, thanks to a federal structure, multiple state organs each held effective veto over enforcement. Moreover, a silly legalistic fetish required that fugitivies have warrants sworn out against them — warrants that would cause regicides’ many friends and sympathizers to raise the alarm before the target could be taken, which is exactly what happened when Downing tried to get Edward Dendy arrested in Rotterdam.

Downing cogitated all manner of extra-legal options to black-bag a few of the Protectorate personnel for his Majesty’s pleasure. What he ended up with was cunning, vicious, and just barely legitimate.

Turning one of the regicides’ contacts with threats and bribery, he secured advance warning of Barkstead, Corbet, and Okey’s planned visit to Delft in early March 1662. He then waited until the very day he planned to spring his trap to procure a general arrest warrant (concealing the names of his prey) from the Estates General’s capable leader Johan de Witt, and pounced within hours — using a force of his own men and a little more payola to circumvent the inevitable reluctance of the local bailiffs.

Now that the regicides were in irons, Downing had to double down on duplicitous diplomacy by maneuvering to get them delivered to the English — and that against a growing popular resistance as their capture became known. The Delft aldermen dilated; sympathetic local worthies visited the prisoners in their cells; petitions on the Englishmen’s behalf circulated nationwide. The notion of actually marching these guys out into English hands seemed to promise a riot.

Downing spread more palm grease around, maneuvered to frustrate legal aid for the prisoners, posted his own men to watch the prisoners 24-7, and after several tense days finally made arrangements

in the dead of the night to get a boate into a litle channell which came neare behinde the prison, and at the very first dawning of the day without so much as giving any notice to the seamen I had provided … forthwith to slip them downe the backstaires … and so accordingly we did, and there was not the least notice in the Towne thereof, and before 5 in the morning the boate was without the Porto of Delft, where I delivered them to Mr. Armerer … giving him direction not to put them a shoare in any place, but to go the whole way by water to the Blackamore Frigat at Helverdsluice.

Downing was exultant.

“This is a thing the like thereof hath not been done in this country and which nobody believed was possible to be done,” he gloated in his correspondence. “And there is not a thing that hath happened these many yeares that hath occasioned so much discourse here, saying that they are now no longer a free Countrey, and that no man is now sure here.” De Witt and the Dutch Estates General, having never had any intention to actually deliver a regicide to condign punishment in England, had been embarrassingly played. Ordinary Hollanders were infuriated and ashamed at having been a party to the whole business.

Nobody could dispute the excellence of Downing’s operation. But anybody on either side of the channel who wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool Royalist was somewhere between discomfited and revolted by it, especially as it was achieved against his own personal benefactor by a guy who had once urged Cromwell to make himself king.

Diarist Samuel Pepys (who witnessed the executions, reporting the victims “very cheerful” on that occasion) recorded the mood of the English burgher upon the news

that Sir G. Downing (like a perfidious rogue, though the action is good and of service to the King, yet he cannot with a good conscience do it) hath taken Okey, Corbet, and Barkestead … all the world takes notice of him for a most ungrateful villaine for his pains.


See: Ralph C.H. Catterall, “Sir George Downing and the Regicides,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jan., 1912)

* Dutch affinity for religious dissent and for foreigners was all of a piece with its prosperous mercantile empire. One liberal Englishman (quoted by James Walker in “The English Exiles in Holland during the Reigns of Charles II and James II,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, Vol. 30 (1948)) proposed that “Liberty of Conscience would be a more serious blow to Holland than all the victories yet gained.”

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1912: Frederick Seddon, for love of money

1 comment April 18th, 2012 Headsman

A century ago today, a jittery Frederick Seddon hanged at Pentonville Prison for murder.

This was a sensational and utterly circumstantial case … although the laudatory London Times editorial of March 15, 1912 noted, “as Shakespeare has it, there are ‘strong circumstances which lead directly to the door of truth.’”

(This earnestly presented line might have been inserted by a subversive copywriter, since the Shakespeare character who spoke those words was the duplicitous Iago … in the scene where he misleads Othello into believing his wife unfaithful and sets in motion the play’s tragic outcome.)

Seddon, the district superintendent of the London and Manchester Insurance Company, wouldn’t have been the type to appreciate the irony. He was a prosperous little man who knew the value of a pound and not enough else.

A couple of years before, Seddon’s family had taken on as a boarder an eccentric, cheapskate spinster answering to the name of Eliza Barrow. Everyone got on famously and Barrow came to trust the discreet bourgeois’s financial advice — trusted it even enough to transfer to him thousands of pounds of assets in exchange for a three-quid-a-week lifetime annuity plus rent-free lodgings.*

Annuity Gratuity

Now, Jane Austen would have us believe that “people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them,” but this was not at all the case with Miss Barrow: just a few months after emptying her coffers into Seddon’s, she took ill with stomach pain, refused to pony up for a hospital visit and made Mrs. Seddon nurse her,** and after two weeks’ misery finally died in her bed on September 14, 1911.

The doctor who had called on her a couple of times ruled her, sight-unseen, a casualty of a going diarrhea epidemic, and handed to Seddon a death certificate which conveniently enabled him to arrange her immediate funeral, on the cheap.

And that was that.

Only when Barrow’s relatives caught wind of her fate and came calling, there to get short shrift from the landlord along with news that all their prospective inheritance was now his, did the strange dead woman get on her way to becoming a household name. When the corpse was exhumed fully two months after burial, there was still enough arsenic in it to kill a person.

Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, with symptoms mimicking gastrointestinal disease in a time when cholera was frequent and autopsies were rare, arsenic got its reputation as “inheritance powder” from its supposed-but-difficult-to-prove widespread use in the 19th century to hasten inconvenient rivals and relations off this mortal coil.

The stuff was also pretty easily available, in products like flypaper. The Seddons had purchased some arsenical flypaper a few days before their lodger fell ill, and the inference is that they soaked it† (which you’re supposed to do) and then laced the resulting poison-laced water into Barrow’s victuals (which you’re not).


It’s her own fault she didn’t insist on Acme brand arsenic-free water. (cc) image from Carlton Browne.

Pomp & Circumstance

All this admittedly incriminating stuff hung together as a case on so much supposition: that Barrow died from arsenic, and that the otherwise un-homicidal Seddons had means, motive, and opportunity to kill her, did not quite add up to proof positive.

Of course, one of the many murderous virtues of arsenic was the ease with which one could administer it, suspicion-free. Very rarely did anyone glimpse the villain, eyebrows peaked and mustache a-twirl, theatrically tapping out drops from a skull-labeled vial: even with the forensic methods coming online, arsenic allegations were circumstantial as to who and how and why practically by definition.

Progress of the case that winter made headlines all over, the biggest thing to hit the bar since Dr. Crippen.

It also became a permanent entry in the lawyers’ primer on why not to let your client testify.

Both Frederick Seddon and his wife Margaret stood trial together, and the evidence against each was pretty much the same. But Margaret was a slam-dunk acquittal, and in fact the judge’s charge to the jury all but directed that result.

However, Frederick’s insistence on testifying to rebut some of the aspersions cast on him would backfire catastrophically. (At least, that was Seddon’s lawyer’s take.)

Seddon insisted on his innocence to the very last, and to read with that idea in mind the testimony he gave for himself, it rarely looks substantively damning. But Seddon’s carriage reputedly pulled together for the jury all the trial’s circumstantial bits, into a believable story of a mean and stone-hearted fellow fully capable of killing for lucre. His demeanor was calm to the point of coldness, his command of the finances in his life meanly obsessive, and he showed unnerving insensibility to human fellow-feeling with his late tenant (he started selling her jewelry the day after she died) or her bereaved (he made only a perfunctory effort to notify her family, and gave them little help when they did show up on the grounds that none was the legal next of kin).

“I am not so ready to think evil of people,” Frederick Seddon said ingenuously at one point when the topic was other people who might have been robbing Miss Barrows. It’s like it didn’t occur to him even while on trial for his life that anyone might think evil of him.

Take, for example, this response to the suggestion that he had stolen a couple hundred pounds sterling from the trunk in Eliza Barrow’s room immediately upon her death.

Your suggestion infers [sic! sort of!] that I am a greedy, inhuman monster, committing a vile crime, such as the prosecution suggests, and then bringing the dead woman’s money down and counting it in the presence of my assistants. The suggestion is scandalous. I would have had all day to count the money.

It has a sort of autistic genius, an absolute tone-deafness that would be impossible to place in a literary character’s mouth lest the scene collapse into slapstick. Jurors must have taken the bloodless insurance adjustor for an insect, and accordingly had not the least compunction about squashing him.

Here’s more Seddon testimony under cross-examination. Again, it’s not exactly self-incriminating, but sufficiently calculating and blase to give you the willies when juxtaposed with late events of his life.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL proceeded to question Seddon on the subject of the annuity which he said he granted to Miss Barrow in consideration of the transfer to him of her leasehold property and India stock.

Had you ever done an annuity transaction before?

“Never in my life.”

This has turned out a remarkably lucky investment from a money point of view?

“Only from that point of view.”

According to what has happened, you paid out altogether £91 and the whole of the property fell to you — you had no longer any money to pay out? You had got the property on the condition that you were to pay out an annuity?

“Exactly, which I did.”

What I am putting to you is that when she died you no longer had to pay out money to her?

“Certainly not — that is the basis on which an annuity is granted.”

You were dealing with this woman, who was living in your house and who had no other advice, certainly as regards this matter?

“That is her fault. She was advised to have a solicitor. I bound myself by legal documents to pay her an annuity, and I carried out my obligations.”

Until September 14?

“During the whole course — as long as she lived.”

In reply to further questions, the prisoner said he only benefited to the extent of 28s. per week by not having to pay the annuity. Asked whether there would be any one else who would benefit by Miss Barrow’s death, he said he had never given that question any consideration. Asked whether he thought Miss Barrow was a person of ordinary mental capacity, he replied “Yes,” adding that he considered she was a very deep woman. As an insurance agent he from his observations considered that she was an indifferent life.

Did you form that opinion when you were negotiating with her for the annuity?

“I might have done. Her average expectation of life was only 21 years.”

Your view was that she would not live over that term, and according to your view she would live less?

“I did not expect her to live the average expectation of life — a woman in her indifferent state of health. She would not be a life that I would recommend any insurance company to accept.”

The jury only needed an hour to shorten Frederick Seddon’s life expectancy to the next few weeks.


Frederick Seddon receives his death sentence on March 15, 1912.

Yet even with the black cap on his head, the judge — a Freemason to whom fellow-initiate Seddon nakedly appealed in open court, “before the Great Architect of the Universe,” for remission of the penalty — couldn’t really articulate exactly what Seddon had been convicted for.

[E]ven if what you say is strictly correct, that there is no evidence that you were ever left at the material time alone in the room of the deceased person, there is still, in my opinion, ample evidence to show that you had the opportunity of putting poison into her food or into her medicine. You had a motive for this crime. That motive was the greed of gold. Whether it was that you wanted to put an end to the annuities or not, I know not — you only can know. Whether it was to get gold that was or was not, or that you thought was, in the cash-box, I do not know. But I think I do know this — that you wanted to make a great pecuniary profit by felonious means.

That’s been the verdict on Frederick Seddon ever since.

* As much as this reads like a transparent con, the modern reader probably won’t have to stretch very far to suppose why Eliza Barrow might have set more stock by a trusted neighbor with a bookkeeper’s heart than she would by dubious machinations of distant and unaccountable economic institutions. Heck, there’d only just been a bank run.

** Reported regimen: barley water and milk, beef juice, and soda water. Mmm-mmm.

† Trial testimony recounted at least one case where the landlords laid four pieces of flypaper into the soaking water. Since one was all that was needed, the presumptive purpose would be to strengthen the liquid’s concentration of poison.

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1689: William Bew, flatterer

1 comment April 17th, 2012 Headsman

This was the hanging-date in 1689 of William Bew, the less-noted younger brother of a more impressive (but by this time deceased) highwayman “Captain Bew”.

Will, too, took to the road. His thieving career might not have been outstanding, but it did give the Newgate Ordinary occasion to wax smug over the nigh-literary comeuppance young Bew once delivered to feminine vanity.

The following story, which Bew himself used to tell, is of an adventure of Bew with a young lady, whom he overtook on the road, with her footman behind her. He made bold to keep them company a pretty way, talking all along of the lady’s extraordinary beauty, and carrying his compliments to her to an unreasonable height. Madam was not at all displeased with what he said, for she looked upon herself to be every bit as handsome as he made her. However, she seemed to contradict all he told her, and professed with a mighty formal air that she had none of the perfections he mentioned, and was therefore highly obliged to him for his good opinion of a woman who deserved it so little. They went on in this manner, Bew still protesting that she was the most agreeable lady he ever saw, and she declaring that he was the most complaisant gentleman she ever met with. This was the discourse till they came to a convenient place, when Bew took an opportunity to knock the footman off his horse; and then addressing himself to the lady, “Madam,” says he, “I have been a great while disputing with you about the beauty of your person; but you insist so strongly on my being mistaken, that I cannot in good manners contradict you any longer. However, I am not satisfied yet that you have nothing handsome about you, and therefore I must beg leave to examine your pocket, and see what charms are contained there.” Having delivered his speech he made no more ceremony, but thrust his hand into her pocket and pulled out a purse with fifty guineas in it. “These are the charms I mean,” says he; and away he rode, leaving her to meditate a little upon the nature of flattery, which commonly picks the pocket of the person it is most busy about.

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2011: Three in Shiraz

2 comments April 16th, 2012 Headsman

A year ago this date, three young men identified as Abolfazl Faraei, Reza Roshanfekr and Seyed Rokneddin Karimi were executed by hanging from cranes in Shiraz, Iran, on charges of kidnapping, armed robbery, and murder.

Disturbing images of the public hangings follow; click on any save the last to zoom to a larger disturbing.

Update: Shiraz marked the anniversary date by hanging eight more the day this post was published, April 16, 2012.

Another man was reported hanged the same date for murder in nearby Takhteh Kenar.

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1905: Chief Zacharias Kukuri

1 comment April 15th, 2012 Headsman

Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were there to make them landless workingmen; and they rose up in revolt.

-Gustav Frenssen, Peter Moor’s journey to Southwest Africa; a narrative of the German campaign (review)

On this date in 1905, in the midst of Germany’s genocidal destruction of the Herero people in its Southwest Africa colony (present-day Namibia), the Otjosazu chief Sacharias Kamaituara Kukuri was hanged in Windhoek.

More than half the Herero population perished following an abortive attempt to resist German colonization during this unfortunately little-remembered period, perhaps the very first of the 20th century’s ample store of genocides.

Our man’s execution occurred at the moment of a policy pivot: after the horrific extermination policy initially practiced by General Lothar von Trotha, Germany’s Herero policy was “moderating”. Von Trotha’s extermination order had been officially reversed by Berlin; by November of 1905, the murderous general would be recalled to Germany. Instead, they’d be collecting the Herero into concentration camps.

It was into the Windhoek camp that Kukuri arrived as the wounded prisoner of a German ambush.


The concentration camp under the walls of Windhoek’s Alte Feste (Old Fort). Today, the fort is a museum … and the camp, forgotten, is the grounds of a high school. (Source)

Of course, it goes without saying that, even if state policy no longer aimed officially at racial annihilation, the system of concentration camps continued the de facto genocide: the systematic destruction of Herero life in order to incorporate the population as a subject proletariat (enlightened self-interest — the colony’s “economic future would be completely destroyed by the extermination of the indispensable labor power” — is what finally trumped von Trotha). At the same time, camps structured a punitive neglect of Herero living conditions, a years-long “period of suffering” in which Herero died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and neglect as surety against any future resistance. Courts-martial of fighting-age men alleged to have had some hand in resisting by arms the German onslaught completed the salutary lesson.

Missionary sources provide us with eyewitness accounts of conditions in the camps. Missionaries stationed in the Herero Konzentrationslager reported to their superiors in Germany on the extensive and unchecked rape, beatings and execution of surrendered Herero by German soldiers. Missionary Kuhlmann spoke of the delight of settler women witnessing the drawn-out public hangings of captured Herero in Windhoek. At one such hanging, a drooling Herero fighting for his life was berated” ‘You swine, wipe your muzzle’. (pdf source)

Kukuri fell into this last category.

His fate is especially poignant for us (and, convenient to date) thanks to the memoirs of Friedrich Meier, one of the many German Christian missionaries who had poured into Namibia ever since it became a German colony. As Meier’s account of swapping Biblical allusions with Kukuri in the shadow of the latter’s gallows underscores, these missionaries had achieved some inroads.

I did not see the slightest trace of fear on him, instead it was as if he were going to a wedding. ‘Muhonge’, he said at one stage, ‘oami otja Elias mohamakuao na je otjinga me keende kejuru metemba,’ i.e. ‘Muhonge, like Elias, I too travel to heaven in a waggon.’

Having arrived at the execution site, I noticed how he kept looking at the gallows, at which preparations were still taking place. I feared for his tranquility and asked him to stop looking at it. ‘Muhonge,’ he said to me, ‘I hear everything, why should I not look at it? For is it not “my wood” [my cross]?’

When we finally stood underneath the gallows, we prayed together that beautiful song: ‘So then take my hand and lead me.’

German:

English:

Possibly he noticed that I was worried about him. Anyway when I was finished he said, ‘It would appear that you still fear that I am afraid, but have I not told you: “When a father calls his child, does that child then fear to go to him?” Give my wife, who is in Okahandja, my greetings and tell her that I have died in the faith of the lord Jesus, so too tell my children if you should ever see them.’ I asked him again to be infatuated with the lord Jesus. ‘Lord Jesus, you help me,’ with this, after he had given me his hand, he climbed up the ladder. Soon the noose was laid around his neck. And then — never will I forget that moment — the unheard-of happened, as he fell the noose slipped and the wretch fell to the ground. He lost consciousness for a moment, so too, the observers were dumbstruck. Today I still see how his eyes sought me out. Soon, however, two soldiers were there, they lifted him up, and then a little to the side, on orders of the major who led the proceedings, he was shot.

Kukuri’s grave can still be seen at the Gammans cemetery (German link) in Windhoek.

His memory as an emblem of Herero dignity under persecution also remains in present-day Namibia.

Anette Hoffmann (in “The Merits and Predicaments of Opacity: Poetic Strategies of Evasion and Resistance” for the fall 2007 Research in African Literatures) relates a later “praise poem” for 1959 Herero martyrs, whose allusion to the hanged chief (as “Hauzeo”) emphasizes his agency, rather than his victimhood.

For he as the son of the chief Kukuri and must die since Samuel Maherero had escaped to Botswana. They said that if they kill him, then that could serve as a symbol that they had exterminated the sovereignity of the Herero … he was taken to a tree near the White’s cemetery in Otjomuise, which is still here today. I can show you his grave. He is still there until now, near the railway line to Aris … when he was taken to the tree, the tree of Hauzeu, as you hear about it, it was said: now you will be hanged to die. Heavily wounded as he was, he had a rope around his neck and was hanged. However, his weight broke the rope. Then the Germans said he was innocent and had to be released. But he himself insisted to be hanged again … [he said] “I have come to see the children of Tjamuaha’s house, those left in the camps of enslavement: to see them with my own eyes … this is why I have come: take me up the tree.” They did and he died. He lies at Hauzeu’s tree. He had given himself to be hanged.

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1736: Andrew Wilson, in the Heart of Midlothian

Add comment April 14th, 2012 Headsman

“The mob of Edinburgh, when thoroughly excited, had been at all times one of the fiercest which could be found in Europe.”

-Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian

Cycles of violence often climax in executions. On this date in 1736, the execution of Andrew Wilson instead initiated the cycle … which culminated in one of the most notorious riots in Scottish history.

Worthy fodder indeed for Scott’s pen.

That January, Wilson, George Robertson, and William Hall had robbed an excise tax collector of £200, earning all three of them a death sentence. Hall drew a commutation, and Robertson spectacularly escaped from the condemned men’s sermon when he bolted for the door while Wilson obstructed the guards. (All the civilians present stood aside for the fleeing man, who successfully reached Holland and safety.)

Public sympathy for the self-sacrificing Wilson — whose victim was collecting a much-resented levy for the much-resented new British Union — had become acute by April 14th, when Wilson was to be publicly executed in the Grassmarket.

A great, and tense, crowd turned out for the occasion. The poet Allan Ramsay was present among them.

[The escape of Robertson] made them take a closer care of Wilson who had the best character of them all (til his foly made him seek reprisals at his own hand), which had gaind him so much pity as to raise a report that a great mob would rise on his execution day to relieve him, which noise put our Magistrates on their guard and maybe made some of them unco flayd [unusually afraid] as was evidenced by their inviting in 150 of the Regement that lys [lies] in Cannongate, who were all drawn up in the Lawn Market, while the criminal was conducted to the tree by Captain Porteous and a strong party of the City Guard.

This Captain John Porteous of the also-resented Edinburgh City Guard was not a well-calculated selection to calm everyone’s nerves.

He’d hooked up the lucrative officers’ appointment courtesy of political pull, then proceeded to become a violent, overbearing ass and “procured him the universal hatred of the people in that city.”

Wilson was executed, as Ramsay says, “with all decency & quietnes,” but when the body was being removed the irritable crowd favored its obnoxious guards with a few missiles. Porteous, who obviously wasn’t the turn-the-other-cheek type, destructively escalated the confrontation.

After he was cut down and the guard drawing up to go off, some unlucky boys threw a stone or two at the hangman, which is very common, on which the brutal Porteous (who it seems had ordered his party to load their guns with ball) let drive first himself amongst the inocent mob and commanded his men to folow his example which quickly cleansed the street but left three men, a boy and a woman dead upon the spot, besides several others wounded, some of whom are dead since. After this first fire he took it in his head when half up the Bow to order annother voly & kill’d a taylor in a window three storys high, a young gentleman & a son of Mr Matheson the minister’s and several more were dangerously wounded and all this from no more provocation than what I told you before, the throwing of a stone or two that hurt no body. Believe this to be true, for I was ane eye witness and within a yard or two of being shot as I sat with some gentlemen in a stabler’s window oposite to the Galows. After this the crazy brute march’d with his ragamuffins to the Guard, as if he had done nothing worth noticing but was not long there till the hue and cry rose from them that had lost friends & servants, demanding justice. … I could have acted more discreetly had I been in Porteous’s place.

There were up to 30 casualties, and the temper of that fierce Edinburgh mob went from bad to worse over the ensuing months.

Authorities were obliged by public outrage to arrest Porteous for murder, and in an electric trial with a good deal of witness testimony scrambled by the post-hanging chaos, Porteous himself was condemned to hang.

We might, however, suppose with Scott that “if Captain Porteous’s violence was not altogether regarded as good service, it might certainly be thought, that to visit it with a capital punishment would render it both delicate and dangerous for future officers” — to say nothing of the “natural feeling, on the part of all members of Government, for the general maintenance of authority.” It’s not as if there are a lot of cops charged with capital crimes today for even the most egregious homicides.

Intervention to block the hanging came straight from London at the instigation of first Prime Minister Robert Walpole, whose intervention was also not liable to tame any passions. Instead …

In the ensuing riot, an Edinburgh lynch mob overpowered Captain Porteous’s guards at the Tolbooth and hauled the scoundrel out to the Grassmarket where he was beaten and hanged on a dyer’s pole.

Despite a £200 reward for the authors of Porteous’s death, and a passing Parliamentary threat to revoke the city’s charter altogether, no Edinburgher ever talked, and no person was ever prosecuted for the Porteous riots.


It was not until 1973, with “all passion spent”, that this memorial stone was erected for John Porteous in Greyfriars Kirkyard. (cc) image from Kio Stark.

The Heart of Midlothian, Scott’s novel that features these infamous riots, was also the nickname for the the Old Tolbooth, the Edinburgh gaol where both Wilson and Porteous were housed before their respective unfortunate demises. Today, the Heart only remains as a literal heart-shaped mosaic in the city’s paving-stones marking the building’s former location.

Generations of passersby have paused to hawk a loogie on this design as a gesture of the citizenry’s lasting contempt for the long-demolished prison.


The present-day “Heart of Midlothian” in Edinburgh’s paving-stones. (cc) image from Lee Carson.

Much less hostile is the reception given Walter Scott’s oeuvre.

The names of the novelist’s books and their characters were often repurposed by Scots to name nigh anything … stuff like, a Heart of Midlothian Dancing Club in Edinburgh, from which in turn emerged a cadre of sportive youth who formed the still-extant Heart of Midlothian Football Club.

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1961: Marie Fikacková, Beast of Sušice

Add comment April 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1961, Czechoslovakian maternity ward nurse Marie Fikackova was hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison for murdering newborns in her care.

Fickakova, nee Schmidlova, was a well-liked 24-year-old with a failed marriage already at her back when she was arrested in February 1960 after two infants died of brain injuries the same night during her shift at the Sušice hospital.

Under lengthy interrogation, Fikackova finally confessed to having developed the habit of relieving the agitation of her menses (her story, not mine!) by permanently silencing newborns who bawled too much. We all have our personality quirks, but if hers was “homicidally enraged by crying babies” then it’s safe to say she was in the wrong line of work.

“When I was pressing little Prosserová’s head, I could feel my fingers sinking into it,” she described. “I did not feel any skull cracking at that time. I was just pressing the little head and my fingers got deeper and deeper. My anger faded away after a while and I could continue working.”

Fikackova proceeded to cop to ten-plus additional therapeutic attacks on children, but police had a very difficult time substantiating them relative to documented injuries and the nurses’ shift calendar. In the end, the courts hung her with the original two.

We have seen, in these pages, better-balanced subjects issue more outlandish auto-denunciations under less police pressure, so while we’re in no position to assert anything with certainty, we’re inclined to take the absence of corroborating evidence from an institution that ought to have plenty of it for the asking to suggest the strong possibility that Fikackova’s confessions tended to the fantastical.

Nevertheless, the public has been inclined to take the woman at her claim of double-digit homicides, and magnified Fikackova into a legendary mass murderer and the authoress of every neonatal abnormality in town. Even now she’s sometimes mentioned as Czechoslovakia’s most prolific serial killer, or blamed for the infirmities of any and all folks born in late-Fifties Sušice. (Both links in this paragraph are in Czech.)



For this staged demonstration of her baby-slaying technique, authorities even let Marie Fikackova put on the nurse outfit. (Source of the images)

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1652: Joan Peterson, the Witch of Wapping

1 comment April 12th, 2012 Headsman

“Let the sceptical read the ‘Country Justice’ to see what subtle threads were strong enough for a witch-halter!” (Source)

On this date in 1652, Joan Peterson was hanged at Tyburn for witchcraft.

Joan is a long time in the ground, and her dying refusal to be cowed by the officious prelate ordained to badger her into self-incrimination would alone stand her in very worthy stead in these pages. Even the hangman got annoyed when Joan, at the gallows,

was by the Ordinary nine on ten times earnestly pressed to confesse something against the said Mrs. Levingstone: Whereupon the Executioner told the Ordinary, he might be ashamed to trouble a dying woman so much, to which he replyed, he was commanded so to doe, and durst doe no otherwise. And afterwards the said Ordinary still insisting in his discourse, and very often pressing the said Peterson to confesse and discharge her conscience before God and the world; she answered that she had already confessed before the Bench, all she had to confesse; that she had made her peace with God; and therefore desired to dye in quiet, for now she was to appeare before God who presently would Judge her, and that God was witnes, that she dyed Innocently, and was in no wise guilty of what was laid to her charge.

Go, Joan.

This account comes to us from one of the surviving pamphlets (pdf) about her case, a document that, were it produced today, would probably draw a severe sanction under Britain’s nasty libel laws for its scandalous indictment of Joan’s persecutors.

It lays out an unscrupulous conspiracy of local grandees scrabbling after inheritance money, in which the “Witch of Wapping” swung for being the only honest broker in the room. Sure, we can’t prove it. But the rival, anti-Joan pamphlet (also at that same pdf link) has a lot of rot about our woman damningly chattering with a diabolical familiar in the cunning guise of a squirrel.


Satan’s minion. (cc) image from alphakilo2bravo.

According to the pro-Joan pamphleteer, the trouble started when an elderly woman named Lady Powell died, leaving her wealth to a particular relative — the “Mrs. [Anne] Levingstone” mentioned in the excerpt above — and stiffing several others.

These others contrived a scheme to charge Anne Livingston with witchery in order to separate her from her windfall and get their own hands on it. Though witch-hunting never really reached the epidemic dimensions in England that it often achieved on the continent — the English ban on torture helped prevent self-sustaining cycles of forced denunciations — it did have its moments, and the characters in question may have been encouraged by the recent exploits of notorious witch-diviner Matthew Hopkins in preposterous judicial homicide.

But they weren’t targeting Joan Peterson at all. They just wanted to use her to get at Livingston.

When Peterson, a local healer with a knack for fixing migraines, refused a bribe to accuse Livingston of sorcering, the plotters made it an offer she couldn’t refuse (and protected themselves from exposure) by accusing Joan herself.

Our pamphlet presents a riveting and revolting story of the conspirators essentially being one with the local judicial officials — in fact, when it comes to trial, they’re literally Joan Peterson’s judges — but even as they groped her for witches’ teats and the like, they endeavored “to perswade the said Peterson to confess [since] she needed not fear what she confessed, for it was not her life they aimed at, but to have matter whereby to accuse one Mrs. Levingston, who had gotten the said Lady Powels estate, and thereby had undone 36 Persons of the said Ladyes Kindred.”

Playboy parliamentarian (and, recently, regicide) John Danvers* made a rare appearance in the neighborhood to help orchestrate events. Danvers was a sound man to have for an expedient financial racket; he was famous for acquiring his fortune by marrying an older widow. She’d since died, and he’d since squandered it.

Even with the fix in, however, Joan’s ability to produce physician testimony and a written post-mortem ascribing Lady Powell’s death to natural causes — the doctors were impressed she’d managed to make it to age 80 what with the “the Dropsie, the Scurvey, and the yellow Jaundies” — ran that whole case aground.

Considering the incriminating threats and blandishments Joan had heard, however, they just got her on a second, simultaneous indictment — for bewitching one Christopher Wilson, on the grounds that he’d gone to her for a cure, gotten a little better, and then relapsed. If you think modern libel law is harsh, you should see Protectorate malpractice law.

Wilson, one should add, did not make this complaint himself: others were induced to level the charge on his behalf, while the court itself barred most defense testimony with threats to imprison the witnesses as probable witches themselves. (Nevertheless, some did appear for Joan.) Somehow, this was enough for conviction.

Even after her condemnation,

the said confederates and their agents went very often to her promising her a Repreive or Pardon if she would confesse that Mrs. Levingstone had Imployed her to make away the life of the Lady Powell, to which she replyed she could not, because it was altogether false. But one of the said confederates urging her againe to say something against Mrs. Levingstone, she told him he was a rogue, and gave him a blow on the face, which made his nose bleed: Where it is to be noted, that what for love of money they could not tempt her to, they resolved at last for love of her life to force her to, by necessitating her either unjustly to confesse a notorious falsehood against the said Mrs. Levingstone or else to dye without mercy or Repreive, which otherwise was proffered her by the said Confederates, to make her unjust in doing the same.

Go, Joan.

* There’s a street named for him in Chelsea. His family name (though not selected specifically for John Danvers) also adorns the town of Danvers, Massachusetts … which was renamed in the 18th century to help bury its notoriety as Salem Village, an epicenter of the Salem witch trials.

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